John Plunkett takes a look at Ofcom’s latest Communications Market Report

Plunkett on TV: The truth about binge watching

“Binge-watching’ was the phrase that dominated newspaper coverage of Ofcom’s annual survey of the nation’s media habits, and yet the truth of the way we watch TV today is rather more complicated than that.

“Millions skip sleep to binge-watch TV … End of families gathering round the TV as binge watching grows … Blighty has devolved into a nation of unwashed binge watchers,” were just a few of last week’s headlines.

To which the only sensible response is: “Well, up to a point.” (On the cleanliness issue Ofcom doesn’t yet monitor how often we shower or climb into the tub, but who knows where it will go next).

Newspapers love writing about binge-watching because it’s (relatively) new and young people do it. And yet the dominant theme of what emerged from what Ofcom had to say about our TV habits was the enduring appeal of live TV in the era of ‘Martini Media’ (copyright Mark Thompson, circa 2006) - “anytime, anyplace, anywhere”.

Live broadcast television remains the nation’s overwhelming platform of choice - 91% of us watch it at least once a week, watching an average of three hours and 32 minutes a day last year, down just four minutes on 2015.

Yes, more people appear to be binge-watching - hence those headlines - but it’s all relative.

The Ofcom survey found that 35% of people in the UK say they binge-watch “at least weekly”. Which presumably means sitting down and watching at least two or three episodes of the same programme in a row.

But people have been doing that ever since the rise of the DVD “box set”.

Indeed, the report goes as far to suggest there might be a backlash against binge-watching, with “35% of back-to-back viewers saying that they have cut down on this type of viewing in some way” and “47% of back-to-back viewers aged 16-24 have taken action to cut down”.

Why? Because they “missed out on sleep or were tired” the next day and it made then “neglect housework or other chores” (not all bad then).

Nearly 10% said they “now watched more live broadcast TV” and a small proportion had “cancelled a subscription on-demand or streaming service, thereby removing temptation altogether”. It's a trend not readily apparent from last week's coverage.

Have we reached “peak binge”? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. But maybe the nation has decided it’s time to take a bath or - gulp - spend a bit more time talking to other members of our family instead.

We’ll only know when next year’s Ofcom report comes out. What we do know is that Ofcom says live TV accounted for 80% of AV viewing last year with another 10% watched and recorded in the subsequent seven days.

This compares to 4% of viewing on subscription video on demand services such as Amazon, Netflix and Now TV, and another 4% via broadcaster’s own video on demand services, such as ITV Player, All4 and the BBC’s iPlayer.

Viewing of big sporting occasions or national events remains as big a draw as ever. This is why nearly 10 million people saw the finale of ITV's Broadchurch, more than 3 million viewers watched the opening episode of Channel 4's National Treasure, and Sky 1's Jamestown opened with a consolidated audience of 1.7 million viewers, the channel's biggest series launch for 12 months. Watching a programme the same time as everyone else gives us the opportunity to discuss it with friends and family as soon as it’s been on - and no chance of irritating spoilers. 

One thing the survey does appear to confirm is the decline of the DVD, with 63% of homes owning a DVD player last year, down from 85% five years ago. This is where the rise of on-demand TV has really hit.

The robustness of live TV viewing is reflected by the bottom line - revenues for the broadcast TV industry increased by 1% in real terms to £13.8bn last year.

“Despite fundamental changes in the advertising market over the last ten years, the television advertising market has remained very resilient due to its primacy in providing mass audiences,” said Ofcom.

These revenues have fed through to what we seen on screen, with the spend on UK originated programming by the main five public service broadcasters its highest for five years. More than half of these channels’ output was first run UK originated content last year.

Netflix’s The Crown garnered lots of headlines over the last 12 months, but broadcast TV isn’t about to abdicate any time soon.

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